Evelyn Groenink

South Africa | The murder of Tsepo Ndhlovu and Limpopo’s mountains of silence

How much airtime goes in one year, just to find out what is happening to one case of murder of a young man in South Africa? Or rather, times two? It is now two years ago that Tsepo Ndhlovu was killed by police officer Adolph Rikhotso at Groenvlei farm near Mookgophong, formerly Naboomspruit, in northern Limpopo province, on the 11th of March 2020. A quick count of the airtime used to try and break through the mountains of silence surrounding this case amounts to close to a thousand South African Rands, which, at over sixty Euros, is a lot.

Times two. Likely still more, because you also spent data on all these unanswered emails.

Tsepo’s mother Catherine Ndhlovu, who has to choose between airtime and food on a good day, lacks both the money and the ‘call the manager’ type of privilege to ever find out why her son’s murderer still walks around, with his gun and his swagger, down the corridors of Naboomspruit police station, friends with the station commander who lies for him and with the detectives’ captain who told friends who came inquiring about Adolph Rikhotso that ‘you think you are white’.

Airtime has also been wasted on the Provincial Police Command.

Airtime has also been wasted on Limpopo’s Provincial Command of the South African Police Services (SAPS), where the report that protects Adolph Rikhotso is buried. Seven emails and five phone calls are unanswered there about that report, that claims that Tsepo Ndhlovu had threatened Adolph Rikhotso; that Rikhotso shot Tsepo in self-defence; and that Tsepo was taken to the ‘nearest health facility’ after the shooting. Never mind that the tavern owner at Groenvlei farm said that Tsepo was running away from Adolph when Adolph shot him, and that Tsepo’s friend Oliver had seen Tsepo bleeding to death in the back of a police van with the driver instructed to wait.

All of this has been said in Whatsapps, phone calls and emails, to the station commander and the provincial Limpopo SAPS commissioner, last year and this year. None of it has been responded to.

Of course there is IPID, the Independent Police Investigations Directorate, that deals with policemen who commit crimes. ‘IPID! Go to IPID!’ Captain Nape Modiba in Naboomspruit had told us with a grin that said neither he nor anyone at his office was actually afraid of IPID. Maybe Captain Modiba knew something we did not.

IPID officer Mapheto, whose airtime is paid for by the state, has never called Catherine Ndhlovu. ‘He promises to call back when we call him’, says George Ndhlovu, who is Catherine Ndlovu’s father and Tsepo Ndhlovu’s grandfather. ‘He says ‘I’ll call you straight back.’ But he never does.’ Retired bus driver George Ndhlovu, with his good English and his meticulous letter of complaint about the murder of his grandson, has repeatedly been dismissed by Mapheto as much as he had been dismissed by Naboomspruit police station commander Kekana (‘Write a letter’, Kekana had said when George Ndhlovu had come to see him at the station. ‘That will help. You must write a letter’.)

A written complaint made to SAPS in April 2021 finally gets Catherine Ndhlovu’s hopes up. An officer visits her. He phones Mapheto in her presence. Catherine Ndlovu hears the officer say ‘Oh, not this family again.’ (‘He also said something like we are useless’, recalls George Ndhlovu, who had accompanied his daughter.) The SAPS complaints officer makes Catherine Ndhlovu write a statement that her son was killed. This will remain the entirety of the activity exhibited by SAPS’ complaints nodal point.

But of course, the ballistics report on Adolph Rikhotso’s gun is still outstanding. Mapheto always mentions this when someone with airtime phones him, and Mapheto’s bosses, when gotten hold of, repeat it. IPID can’t move without a ballistics report. The ballistics report is still outstanding at SAPS’ Forensics Lab in Pretoria. For two years now.

‘Mapheto tells me the investigation is complete’, says Innocent Khuba, Mapheto’s former boss, who is now with IPID in another province, and who told us energetically, two years ago, that he ‘would go and check with SAPS Forensics in Pretoria’ himself. ‘We are just waiting for the ballistics report.’ The same answer comes from the Magistrates Court in Naboomspruit, the Department of Justice’s office in the provincial capital Polokwane, and even from the Human Rights lawyer in Pretoria, who, overburdened and beaten down with so many similar cases, has been resigned to simply waiting. The wait is for the ballistics report. The backlog at the SAPS Forensics lab in Pretoria is to blame. It will come. We must just wait.

It is only when the last airtime is used to phone the SAPS Forensics Lab in Pretoria, that we find out that this is a wait that will likely never end. Because Adolph Rikhotso’s gun, that was supposedly submitted to the lab with the case number and the police station name, is not there. ‘The case is not registered here’, says an officer who checks for us, then doublechecks. ‘No, I did not write a typo.’ Could the person who says that a gun with that case number was given in for a ballistics report, perhaps be lying? ‘For sure’, says the officer.

The next day I phone again. The same officer remembers the case number. He repeats it back to me flawlessly. He says he is still sure. Still, I phone again, a third time, this time directly to the ballistics division. ‘What police station? Mo-Mookgophong? What number? No, there is no such case,’ says the ballistics officer.

‘The ball is now in the prosecutor’s court’, says officer Makhobotloane of the Department of Justice in Polokwane. Mr Makhobotloane, found after a scramble by several individuals at erratic phone extensions to find someone who knows about these things, believes that only the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa, NPA for short, can demand evidence from IPID, the police, and SAPS Forensics. ‘Otherwise, they will continue to point fingers at one another.’

Only the NPA? This is another worry. There are so many reports about dysfunctionality at that agency, too. But at least the acting chief prosecutor in the area around Naboomspruit, whose name is advocate Billy Mudavhi, promises on Whatsapp to take this case on ‘with vigour and relentless’.

Which, it has to be said, he indeed starts doing. Two days later, Mudavhi sends a message that IPID officer Mapheto has produced an acknowledgement receipt form for the gun from SAPS Forensics and that the gun test report is presently being ‘fast-tracked.’ The next day, suddenly, a response is received from SAPS Limpopo. The office of Acting Provincial Commissioner for Limpopo, Major General J P Scheepers, confirms that it did receive ‘a report on the killing of Joseph (Tsepo) Ndhlovu immediately after the incident happened’. It also confirms that officer Adolph Rikhotso is still employed at SAPS. It adds that ‘IPID is busy with criminal investigations’; that ‘Police Management is busy with internal disciplinary investigations’; and that the ‘matter is still sub judice’.

In response to the question why SAPS seems to all along have refused to apply any internal discipline procedures, SAPS Limpopo reverts back to its zero stance, stating that ‘it is common knowledge that cases involving the police are investigated by IPID.’ (Which is weird, because it had just said in the same letter, fifteen lines up, that it was busy with its own investigation.)

Does Limpopo’s Police Management’s ‘internal disciplinary investigation’ actually exist? Does the ballistics case in SAPS Forensics’ systems?

There are still more questions than can be answered, it seems, even with all the airtime in the world.

And Catherine Ndhlovu waits.

The killing of Tsepo Ndhlovu

32-year-old Tsepo Ndhlovu, full name Mvangazi Joseph Ndlovu, Catherine Ndlhovu’s eldest son and a breadwinner for his younger siblings, was shot dead by Mokgoophong police officer Adolph Rikhotso on 11 March 2020. The bullet went into Tsepo’s side as he jumped up from the tavern stoep where he had been sitting at Groenvlei farm near Mokgoophong in Limpopo province. He had jumped trying to run away from Rikhotso, who he knew was there to arrest him. Tsepo’s uncle had called the policeman to arrest Tsepo for beating up another young nephew. By all accounts, it had never been the uncle’s intention to get Tsepo killed. It had been, in the words of family members, just to ‘teach him a lesson’. The family members felt that Tsepo should ‘not be naughty’, even if there was and is a lot to feel frustrated about in this dilapidated rural region, where communities, once promised development, vegetate around the tavern. Tsepo Ndhlovu acted out sometimes, but also sold wood to support his family. He had recently bought equipment to start a welding business. His life was ended before he could put it to use.